By Michael Fowler
Bill Gates has donated $10 million to an Australian trial of a vaccine that researchers hope will prevent severe cases of COVID-19 in at-risk groups such as healthcare workers and the elderly.
The billionaire Microsoft founder’s funding, the largest single donation to Australia’s COVID-19 research effort so far, comes after weeks of discussions between the Melbourne-based lead researcher, Professor Nigel Curtis, and Mr Gates’ scientific advisers.
The study started on March 27 at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and has so far recruited 2500 healthcare workers across Australia.
Professor Curtis said the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – which has so far donated about $US250 million ($388 million) worldwide to COVID-19 research – made contact with his group about a month ago.
“I then had numerous intense Zoom conversations with Bill Gates’ scientific advisers,” Professor Curtis said.
“He has a whole system of advisers who check what you’re doing and help to optimise the design. They were very helpful.
“We had conversations most days, so it’s felt like a long few weeks, but this is the fastest time that Bill Gates’ foundation has ever agreed to donate to a trial.”
Professor Curtis is hesitant to put a time frame on when the trial could produce results but said it would likely be at least three to six months.
“We see it being used especially if there’s a second wave of COVID-19 in Australia or overseas,” said Professor Curtis, a clinician and researcher at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The University of Melbourne.
“More importantly it’s a proof of principle. If we can show this boosts the immune system, this would be something off the shelf that can bridge the gap for other groups before coronavirus-specific vaccines come about.”
To assess the interaction between the BCG vaccine and COVID-19, the trial relies on healthcare workers who have received the vaccine coming into contact with coronavirus cases.
That means the trial’s expansion in the coming weeks to 4000 healthcare workers in the Netherlands and Spain, where COVID-19 is currently more prominent than Australia, will be crucial.
The $10 million donation will also allow the trial to expand to Monash and Epworth hospitals in Melbourne and The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney, plus sites in Perth and Adelaide.
“Generally the only risk is a small scar,” Professor Curtis said.
“The vaccine has been around almost 100 years. About 130 million doses every year are given to children in countries where tuberculosis is still prominent … so production could be ramped up.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged $352 million on Monday towards a $12.5 billion worldwide COVID-19 research fund arranged by the World Health Organisation.
Over the weekend, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Professor Curtis’ research team released a statement warning the BCG vaccine should only be used in clinical trials at the moment.
The stockpiling of anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine alarmed Australian authorities in March, after early but limited evidence of its effectiveness against COVID-19 led to US President Donald Trump spruiking its potential. Trials have since shown the drug to be potentially harmful.